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Urban Agriculture and Food Security: what’s the potential?

Kate Swade

Our ex-team member Hannah Gardiner is doing a masters in Sustainable Food Systems at the Centre for Alternative Technology. In this blog she shares some of her research about the true potential of urban and peri urban food growing: can it really meet our needs?

Providing a secure supply of food for urban citizens is a historic topic of importance for city authorities, and rose again on the agenda following the 2008 food price spike which caused riots in numerous cities. In the face of the current COVID-19 pandemic many are raising the alarm that our food security may be imminently threatened again, including; Tim Lang, the International Food Policy Research institute and the UN. In the UK, there have been calls for a ‘Land Army’ to harvest crops in the face of a lack of seasonal workers and a surge in people starting to grow their own veg for the first time.

Growing food in and around cities has taken place throughout their histories, from the cultivation of fruit trees in Egyptian gardens to the Aztecs ‘chinampa’ canal systems. Urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA) also has historic importance for food security during times of crisis, ‘Dig for victory’ and Cuba are famous examples. Another case is Rosario (Argentina), where a municipal UPA programme supplemented food hand-outs and created employment following an economic crisis in the early 2000’s. However, as cities have grown in size and density, studies document decreased potential for self-sufficiency through UPA, so what is the potential?

A recent study in Sheffield found that proper use of all existing allotments sites could meet 3% of the population’s yearly recommended ‘five a day’ requirement of fruits and vegetables, but if allotment and community garden sites were extended to all suitable land in the city 122% of the population could have their ‘five a day’ requirement met. I identified twelve other studies which each provide a quantitative analysis of the potential for UPA to contribute to food consumption within urban areas and compared the outcomes to see what lessons could be learnt. See the comparison table and summary here

The main takeaways are:

  • There is strong potential for contributions to fruit and vegetable requirements of urban dwellers.
  • Results range from 1.05-276.6% of requirements being met, with variability primarily due to assumptions about land use and access.
  • Yield potential varies by location, pointing to a need for assessments and prioritisation of land use.
  • Growing methods and expertise levels are impactful; therefore maintenance and expansion of growing expertise is necessary. 

Beyond times of crisis, growing projects offer multiple benefits for cities, including; opportunities for improving food waste management, driving uptake of healthy sustainable diets, education opportunities, facilitating citizen engagement/participation, building connection to place, and contributing to local economic resilience

Raised beds at The Calthorpe Project Community Garden - photo credit David Hawgood

Nonetheless, it’s important to avoid the ‘local trap’; small-scale or local growing isn’t intrinsically good. For example, gardeners may overuse pesticides so education on organic practices is desirable. Thus for systemic outcomes, all practices are not equal. Tornaghi and Dehaene propose the politicised conception ‘urban agroecology’, with urban growing part of a suite of ‘value-based practices’ emphasising resource sovereignty, environmental stewardship and multi-species solidarity – explicitly addressing social and environmental justice. 

Many have emphasised urban planning measures are necessary to ensure land access to preserve and expand UPA. Some examples exist; Brighton and Hove (UK) created a planning advisory note on community food growing in new developments – leading to over 38% of approved planning applications including space for it (see more examples and best practice from Sustain). Shared Assets have been part of an international research project looking at how we can create cities which support agroecological food growing, so watch this space for more innovation soon!

"growing projects offer multiple benefits for cities, including; opportunities for improving food waste management, driving uptake of healthy sustainable diets, education opportunities, facilitating citizen engagement/participation, building connection to place, and contributing to local economic resilience." - @HJGardiner

In summary…

Although not a stand-alone solution for urban food provisioning, it seems clear that significant potential from urban and peri-urban food growing could be unlocked if;

1) urban space was prioritised for food growing, through supportive planning policy,

2) provision of technical support and growing expertise was given.

Local priorities, existing conditions and available resources will affect which growing methods and strategies are appropriate for each context, and it’s also clear that some practices offer more benefits than other – such as agroecology. Such projects could also be an important part of rebuilding local economic resilience and providing jobs, a key component of post-corona responses. Mapping your local food web is a good place to start, the sustainable food places network also offers advice on best practice. 

In times of crisis in all countries, personal, local or regional self-sufficiency is an important fallback. Preserving and expanding both land for growing and practical knowledge of how to grow are essential contingency measures for uncertain futures, and ones that should be given proper consideration – especially given our current situation, with both immediate concerns from COVID-19 but also in the context of the wider unfolding climate crisis.

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